It hasn’t always been the best career move for a youngster to accept a transfer to Real Madrid, as Sergio Canales will provide evidence. It didn’t help the young Spaniard that Jose Mourinho doesn’t have the best track record for developing young players, seeing to it that the current Valencia midfielder only saw 15 games in his first season at the Bernabeu. Sergio Ramos is the exception to that rule, a masterful defender who has risen up the ranks at Madrid and become one of the senior figures in the team. That exception also applies to Raphael Varane.
You could more or less see the likely trajectory of Varane’s career over the next few years: plenty of promise, winds up at Real Madrid (due to the recommendation of Zinedine Zidane) but loses his momentum and, importantly, vital years in his development.
But that hasn’t really been the case. Ok, last year when Real Madrid were storming to the La Liga title and looked good for their 10th Champions League crown, it became well-known that Mourinho didn’t have the depth of squad he wanted. Pepe and Sergio Ramos are his first-choice centre-backs and two of the very best on their day. In reserve, it wouldn’t really fill many managers with confidence to place an ageing Ricardo Carvalho or a hugely underperforming Raul Albiol in against either Bayern Munich’s attacking trident of Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez or Barcelona. For that, it’s wholly understandable that we didn’t see much of a then 18-year-old Varane.
However, for the young Frenchman, the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final against Barcelona this season was his watershed moment at the Spanish champions. The teenager was paired with Carvalho at centre-back but far outshone his more experienced partner; it was a wonderful defensive display from a youngster who looked like a seasoned veteran.
Maybe it would have been seen as a fairly hefty price to pay for a teenager out of Ligue 1. Real Madrid, however, took the initiative when others wouldn’t and parted with the 10 million euros for Varane’s services. The summer of 2011 was also the window where Manchester United paid Blackburn Rovers £16million for Phil Jones, and who had completed the signing of Chris Smalling from Fulham in January of 2010 for just under £10million. Both defenders, at the time either still a teen or having just left his teenage years, more than warranted another club spending heavily for Varane.
What you have in Raphael Varane is a player who has always looked promising but really needed a good run in the team to solidify his place as one of the best rising stars on the continent. Dropping in and out of the starting XI is always good for the player’s development, but you don’t get many baptisms of fire quite like the Clasico against Barcelona.
Pepe was out injured and Ramos was completing his final game of a five-game suspension; you could forgive Jose Mourinho for feeling a little uneasy with his back line, which featured Michael Essien at right-back and Alvaro Arbeloa on the left. But here was a youngster who displayed the pace of a natural athlete to keep up with even Lionel Messi. His tackle to deny Cesc Fabregas was arguably one of the finest, if not the finest tackle you’ll see all season. Varane showed power, confidence, an unwavering desire to prove that he was good enough for Mourinho to look at when he was short of numbers. Varane’s equaliser with less than 10 minutes left of the 90 was the perfect way to sum up a perfect game.
So you have to ask what that performance means for the youngster. What you have here is a player who was always building towards something like that. It wasn’t a fluke or something that was totally unexpected. It’s always been said for the past 18 months that Real Madrid needed another centre-back who was good enough to come in and offer similar contributions to that of the first-choice pairing. In Varane, and at only 19 years of age, Madrid have a sensational talent and one who is destined for the big time in near future.